First cases of “climate refugees” in the United States

Aerial view of Jean-Charles Island in Louisiana on August 24, 2022 CECILE CLOCHERET / AFP

The last dozen residents of Jean-Charles Island, Louisiana, have been forced to move due to rising waters.

The island of Jean-Charles, in Louisiana (United States), is now deserted. The territory of three kilometers long and 300 meters wide saw, on Friday September 2, its last inhabitants officially move to the town of Schriever. The reason ? The inexorable rise of the waters. The American media have already renamed them “America’s first climate refugees“. This media expression designates people or groups of people forced to leave a place for environmental reasons (of natural or human origin) which have endangered their existence or seriously affected their living conditions.

However, concerning the former residents of the island, the designation “refugees» is not exact strictly speaking. “Refugee status involves being forced to cross a border to ensure safety“, explains Céline Schmitt, head of external relations and spokesperson for the United Nations Agency for Refugees in Paris (UNHCR). However, in the case of the island of Jean-Charles, the inhabitants are rehoused in the same State. It is therefore more accurate to speak ofclimate displaced persons“. Furthermore, “the legal status of climate refugee does not exist, it is a political or media language“says Céline Schmitt. The UN may have opened the door in 2020 to a recognition of climate refugees, the project did not succeed.

The expression of “America’s first climate refugeesis also to be nuanced. The last inhabitants of the island of Jean-Charles are indeed the first to be rehoused free of charge for climatic reasons in the United States. However, the country saw 56,000 of its compatriots forced to move due to a natural disaster in 2021, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

The area of ​​Jean-Charles’ small strip of land has shrunk from year to year, tirelessly eaten away by salt water. Since 1930, the island has lost 90% of its territory, reports AFP. Built 60 kilometers from the bayou, the town of Schriever consists of 30 spacious pavilions built solely to accommodate the displaced.

Homes fully funded by the state thanks to $48 million in federal relocation assistance given to Louisiana in 2016.”We are only at the beginning of global warming and its consequences, we had to protect these people so that they stay close to home in a secure place.“, explains to France Info John Bel Edwards, Governor of Louisiana. Despite the comfort of life offered by this rehousing, the new residents of Pelican Lane – housing estate where they have been relocated – keep nostalgia for the island of Jean-Charles, an Amerindian land where the last inhabitants descend from the French-speaking Houmas tribe. “The island will always be the home of my heart“Swears to AFP Bert Naquin new resident of Schriever.

A situation with natural and human origins

The situation on the island of Jean-Charles became worrying as early as 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana. Located at the tip of the Gulf of Mexico, the territory is on the front line during hurricane season. The rising waters have killed all possibilities for agriculture or vegetation. “What I have seen evolve is the erosion around the island. There are so many trees that have died due to salt water intrusion. On our land, right here, there were 15 trees when I was little. They are no longer here todaysays Chris to France Info again moved.

Global warming causes the rise in the level of the ocean but it is not the only responsible. Jean-Charles Island sits in the middle of the Mississippi River Delta. A geographical feature that causes the island to sink underwater. A natural phenomenon, called subsidence, accentuated by human activity. “Louisiana combines two factors to explain the subsidence: an active delta and significant mining prospecting“, detailed in our columns in 2015 Thomas Doyle, director of the national research center on marshy areas. Louisiana’s oil industry, one of the most productive in the United States, has greatly weakened the bayou. There are no less than 15,000 kilometers of canals dug to let oil tankers pass. These passages broke the natural barriers of the island and allowed sea water to penetrate.

A phenomenon that is going global

The number of displaced people and climate refugees is constantly increasing around the world. All regions of the globe are affected. In the Sahel, a terrible drought is affecting more than a million people who are forced to change countries. In Pakistan, historic floods affect 33 million people. Among them, some are forced to emigrate to other countries, reports the UNHCR. “ The question is not so much whether the status of climate refugee should be recognized; we need to think more about how to prevent natural disasters“, analyzes Céline Schmitt.

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